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Trip Report Maine trip report -- Boothbay, Monhegan Island

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Recently visited the Boothbay area and Monhegan Island, and here's the trip report.

Day One -- Boothbay. Headed first for the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, which are part formal gardens, part natural-state terrain. Several of the gardens are themed entities, including a children's garden, a kitchen garden full of vegetables and herbs, and yet another designed to appeal to all five senses. All except the Rhododendron Garden (definitely not in season) were lush and full of blooms, very attractive. The bad news: mosquitoes and biting flies were abundant, which is why only one trail was explored -- the Birch Allee, a long open walkway lined with very young birch trees of different types. The other trails went into the woods, and weren’t inviting with all the bugs around. Unfortunately, this is located several miles from the harbor and can only be reached by taxi if you don't have a car (more below). Back in Boothbay Harbor, took a one-hour harbor boat tour which doubles as the ferry to Squirrel Island. This was quite pleasant; several small islands, some with lighthouses, were seen. Regrettably, the Maine State Aquarium was the biggest tourist rip-off I’ve encountered in some time. This is the smallest aquarium I've ever seen, with no more than ten small tanks holding probably no more than twenty local species -- have seen larger fish collections at some Chinatown restaurants. There are also two small touch tanks for kiddies, one with two small sharks, the other with stingrays, horseshoe crabs, and starfish. But there's no way this is worth $5 admission for the maximum 15 minutes spent here, not to mention the hour walk spent each way to get there from Boothbay Harbor. Decided against visiting the Boothbay Railway Village,as this is also several miles from the harbor and the thought of hiring another cab simply did not appeal. Boothbay Harbor itself is reasonably charming, but also fairly touristy -- lots of souvenir shops and eateries that cater to out-of-towners.

Day Two -- Monhegan Island. This is a 90 minute ferry ride from Boothbay Harbor on seas that were a little choppy, but not as bad as one might have experienced. The island is a lovely place, trying hard to retain its small-town, unspoiled feel and largely succeeding. Had enough time to drop into some of the art galleries, eat lunch, walk the town a bit, and visit the Monhegan Museum. This last is attached to the island's lighthouse and consists of three things, a historic museum filled with artifacts (lobster buoys, duck decoys, kitchen items, early Native American artifacts such as arrowheads and sinkers, lighthouse paraphernalia, sewing machines, local fauna pickled in jars, local plant specimens mounted behind glass, photographs both of historic and artistic interest, and information on shipwrecks and geologic matters), an ice house with tools of the trade (saws, picks, etc.), and a surprisingly good little art gallery with works by artists who worked on the island such as George Bellows, Robert Henri, Edward Hopper, and Rockwell Kent. And the view from the grounds is spectacular. Hiking the trails here is apparently a much enjoyed pastime, but given a lack of time, not to mention reports that the trails tended to have hilly and uneven footing, vegetation overgrowth, and plenty of ticks, decided against that option.

Food. Very uneven, ranging from very good to utterly terrible. The Downeast Ice Cream Factory was terrific -- French maple ice cream was rich and luscious, blueberry sorbet and piña colada sorbets boasted surprisingly vibrant flavors -- while the Downeast Candies spot next door sold scrumptious homemade penuche fudge. An Italian restaurant, Ports of Italy, was very expensive but generally good -- a salmon filet in capers and artichoke hearts with roasted potatoes and fresh green bean/carrot medley was done well, while a cioppino had a delicious white wine and tomato broth and a mix of seafood that was cooked to varying degrees of correctness. The Ebb Tide was a diner serving good, basic fare -- blueberry pancakes were thick, solid, and doughy but good, while a crab salad sandwich was pleasing comfort food, accompanied by nicely executed coleslaw. Kaler's was an old-fashioned casual pub and seafood spot dishing out simple fare -- broiled fresh haddock without adornment, lobster pie in a puff pastry, excellent baked beans, plain coleslaw and rice sides, and lobster stew. Less successful was the Tugboat Inn's restaurant, which offered up a nice crumb-topped baked haddock and respectable enough fried shrimp (accompanied by good butternut squash and perfunctory rice pilaf), but awful desserts -- gummy blueberry pie (accompanied by very good Round Top vanilla ice cream) and apple crisp that was seriously undercooked and smelled bad. Even worse was lunch at the Island Inn on Monhegan Island. The inn itself is an old, charming wood structure with a warm, inviting interior -- but avoid the food at all costs. Pan-fried haddock sandwiches contained respectable fish but spotty lettuce and dried out tomato slices, accompanied by acceptable potato chips but also by coleslaw that had gone so bad you could smell it from the cup. The server seemed unconcerned about the problems when they were pointed out.

Public transportation. Nonexistent -- The Boothbay area is a nightmare for someone without a car, with steep and hilly streets, attractions and grocery stores and pharmacies well distant from the harbor area, and a trolley run by a local hotel that this year trimmed its service severely and now goes no place useful. Concord Coach buses reach no closer than Wiscasset, at Huber's Market 15 miles away. And unlike inns in other towns visited that can't be reached by public transportation (Woodstock VT, for one), it was impossible to find Boothbay Harbor lodging options willing to pick up or drop off at the bus stop. Voicing concerns about the lack of public transport to the local Visitor's Center (by telephone only, as the harbor's visitor center was unstaffed each time I walked by) as well as to various merchants and tourist attractions visited about this problem were frequently met with indifference and occasional hostility. A call several months ago to the Botanical Gardens yielded an offer of pick-up and drop-off in Boothbay Harbor if the trolley didn't go there, which was vigorously reneged upon in a follow-up call several days before the visit -- had free tickets not been offered as part of the trip package, wouldn't have gone here at all. Clearly, no one much cares about this issue locally.

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